July 20, 2004

Don't work that hard

From my undergraduate days, I recall a story (I don't know if my recollection of it is entirely accurate) about anthropologists in the 1930s being parachuted in to observe a culture for a year at a time -- no doubt trying to duplicate Bronislaw Malinowski's work (Malinowski was stranded by World War I in New Guinea). Some of his would-be successors, immersed in the radically different Weltanschauung of their hosts, suffered mental breakdowns. The long separation from their own culture's frame of reference and their attempts to understand and think like their hosts was enough to break them.

I'm not nearly so far gone, but I sometimes can sympathize when reading Sayyid Qutb, to whom this blog seems to devote far too much attention. The other day I found that portions of his massive work In the Shade of the Qur'an is online -- I thought about an approach contrasting Qutb's views on some of the Suras to those of some other writers whose works I have on hand, letting the texts speak for themselves, but I'm not all that eager to take it up.

Incidentally, I found this reader review of interest:

Sayid qutb was an influential member of the muslim brotherhood who's writings still to this day misguide many.
Sayed qutb strips the verses from many of its colours so he can twist its neck around & mould it into whatever suits his groups aim. By what is called the expression generalization you can almost contort any verse to suit any purpose or goal. Sayed qutbs tafseer or writing isnt only antiquated or obsolete,it only values with fanatics. Its a real pity that such a name is read by many yet other moderate religious thinkers such as sheikh Mohamed Abdou are forgotton.
to those who think much of sayed qutb, i advise them to read what a past compatriot of the muslim brotherhood had to say about qutbs writings, the sheikhs name is Khalil Abdel Karim.

I googled Khalil Abdel Karim, and found this interesting piece:

There's no such thing as Islamic government, he argues -- the early caliphate was a civil, rather than a religious regime. Sharia's a moral code, not a legal system. And you have to interpret Quranic injunctions liberally, because they were addressed to a society that is totally different than ours today. These kinds of ideas can get you in trouble with a state that still enforces a degree of Islamic orthodoxy. Cairo University professor Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid's been declared apostate by an Egyptian court, and is now living in exile. Former judge Said Al Ashmawi and historian Sayed Al Qimany have both had their books seized. But though Islamist publications might rail against "The Red Sheikh" or the "Mufti of Marxism," as they dub him, Abdel Karim didn't have any serious problems until this year. This might be because of his look, but more likely it's because his most famous book,Qureish from Tribe to State, was mostly targeted at political Islam. But when he started to delve into social issues with The Society of Yathrib or The Situation at the Time of the Prophet's Companions, that's when he had problems. The Islamic Research Academy of Al Azhar, Egypt's main doctrinal watchdog, published a report condemning the books last May. On 14 January, State Security officers raided Karim's publisher and seized copies of the two books. They're still banned today.

Karem's intention wasn't particularly blasphemous, he says -- all he wanted to do was explore the society into which the Quran was revealed. "We need to understand this society before we understand the texts. It was different in every way from our society today. I wanted to shed light" -- here he flicks on a desklamp -- "on aspects that have never been considered before." The problem, Abdel Karim says, was that he didn't approach the topic with the proper reverance. "The style in which I wrote the books is not a style that they were used to. They only know the classical style, praise-writing. But we cannot understand that society if we only focus on the beautiful things." For example, Karem repeats a tradition that the Caliph Omar condemned the payment of exhorbitant bride prices, but then went on to shell out 40,000 dirhams to marry a young girl. "I wanted to show that the Companions of the Prophet were normal human beings. They were not saints. The only one who is sacred in Islam is the Prophet."

Pointing out the Companions' moments of weakness, however, is not just about reasserting human fallibility. It's also a subtle attack on salafism, the belief that the past was perfect, and that early Muslims should be imitated in as many ways as possible.

I'd advise clicking on the link -- there are portions of the article (including sentences in the passage I quoted) that appear in red type -- these were cut by the Egyptian censor. Nice to see free speech and open inquiry thriving in that part of the world.

Posted by Ideofact at July 20, 2004 11:44 PM


While you may not want to take the time to blog it, I do encourage you to read the portion of In the Shade of The Qur'an which is online.

The portion that is online, the 30th juz' (or part) of the Qur'an, deals with the shortest surahs (usually translated chapters) of the Qur'an and the ones which were, for the most part revealed earliest chronologically.

I think if you looked at any parts of Qutb's tafseer and compared them to other tafseers what will strike you most is how similar they are, if you have in your mind some idea that Qutb is some wild-eyed fanatic who came up with new meanings never thought of before. That just is simply untrue.

Especially, however, when dealing with these early short surahs, which deal primarily with the issues of the oneness of God, the reality of the day of judgment and issues of basic universal morality, I don't even think you'll find much controversial (at least unless you think the idea of the end of this world and a subsequent Day of Judgment is controversial).

The only ways in which Qutb's tafseer is really any different from the classical tradition of tafseer are 1. In some sections he does focus more on an understanding of the text in terms of how it relates to an Islamic "movement" in the 20th century. As I said, though, this will not really be the case for the surahs of the 30th juz.

2. As his background was in literature, Qutb also emphasizes literary aspects of the Qur'an and talks a lot about the imagery used by God and the specific language used. You will find a good deal of discussion of this in the 30th juz' but of course not all of it will even be included in an English translation and some that is will lose much of its power since there is a limit to how much one can talk about the literary power of a work to someone who does not even understand the language its written in.

Anyways, if you do read it, let me know if you agree with these observations, I'm interesed to know.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 21, 2004 06:27 PM